Here are capsule reviews of some of the films we screened at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
"Thank You for Smoking" is a comedy for our troubled, intensely partisan times – a film about the ways in which framing an issue becomes more important than solving a problem. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is the type of smarmy guy you want to punch – if only he weren’t so smarmily likeable. As a tobacco lobbyist, Naylor knows he’s in the wrong, but he’s just so good at spin — and hey, everyone’s got a mortgage to pay. And is William H. Macy‘s liberal senator — who berates an aide for not getting a more pitiable cancer patient on a talk show to square off against the lobbyist — really any better? "Thank You for Smoking" merrily skews the left and the right, making the point that sometimes solutions are less important to politicians than looking good.
Part gritty Western, part Jodorowsky-esque mystic journey, and part Cain and Abel parable, "The Proposition" is a terrific movie, a film loaded with blood, tears, and profound moral ambiguity. A Western tableau has rarely been as dirty as "The Proposition"’s 1880s Australian Outback; even in the relative affluence of the police captain and his wife’s home, there are flies everywhere. Guy Pearce stars as a criminal who’s been set free; the catch is that he must bring his (even more ruthless) brother to justice, or his (sweeter) younger brother will be hanged. But no plot description could do justice to the mood and feel of this film, one of the wildest and bloodiest odysseys in recent cinema.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: "Art School Confidential" is not as good as Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes‘ previous collaboration, "Ghost World," nor does it reach the dizzying heights of Zwigoff’s two documentaries about artists, "Louie Bluie" and "Crumb." Still, the film has its share of pleasures, particularly as a wry satire of how arbitrarily the art world selects its favorites for reasons that can have little to do with the art itself. Unlike "Ghost World"’s unsure heroines, whose aimlessness and cynicism go hand in hand with a search for their inner values, "Art School"’s insecure protagonist (Max Minghella) has ambition to burn, and descends into an amorality that pays dividends the lower he goes.
The reason urban legends hold such morbid fascination is that they’re largely in the mind; it’s the telling that makes them amusing. The main problem with "The Darwin Awards" (based upon the website that cites the stupidest deaths, thus maintaining a stronger evolutionary gene pool) is that the visual reputation of gruesome death makes this black comedy a bit hard to stomach. The filmmakers understand this on some level, as their protagonist Michael Burrows (Joseph Fiennes) plays a cop turned insurance claims investigator who faints at the sight of blood. But a subplot about a film student following Burrows around doesn’t work, and Burrows’ risk aversion comes across not as quirky but as labored slapstick.
The hottest film at Sundance, "Little Miss Sunshine," is barely a comedy for its first half, focusing more on the sad (but darkly amusing) quirks of an extremely dysfunctional family. But the film builds to a stunningly funny climax, one that is a moment of familial growth without an ounce of schmaltz. "Little Miss Sunshine" features deft performances from an ensemble cast that includes Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, and Toni Collette; each cast member pulls off the neat trick of exuding familial concern and contempt for others with aplomb.
Michel Gondry‘s rep is largely due to his phantasmagoric visuals, but one would be hard pressed to find a more hopeless romantic at work in contemporary cinema. Like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," his latest, "The Science of Sleep," navigates the divide between the real world and dream states. Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg play neighbors who share whimsy, insecurity, and potentially love; the result is a film that is equally fanciful and haunting.